To the parents of Fremont,
As my fellowship draws to an end, I wanted to share with you, the parents of Fremont, some of the things that I’ve learned as a part of your community for the past 12 months. You can read my official report here. This letter is from me, not as a FUSE Fellow, but as a parent.
After interviewing more than 150 of you, my first big realization was that schools reflect the values of the community. The best characterization of the culture of Fremont schools and of the community is that everything is targeted towards the HSDLE track. This is the Harvard/Stanford/doctor/lawyer/engineer track. The issues with this track could fill a book, but the biggest issue is that, even for those kids who get in to the Ivy League, the HSDLE track doesn’t actually prepare kids for what companies are looking for. How do we know? Google, Apple and EY are just a few of the companies that no longer require ANY college degree as a prerequisite for employment – because they are finding the college degrees are no longer the best signal that an applicant is prepared for the job.
Fremont’s advanced manufacturing companies were very clear. They are looking for creative people who can solve problems they’ve never seen before and who expect that any job will involve lifelong learning. In other words, they’re looking for innovators. You might say that you don’t want your kid to go into advanced manufacturing, but the pace of technological change means that all companies are looking for these skills. Lisa Stern Haynes, the global staffing lead and senior recruiter at Google said that the primary trait they seek in new employees is creative problem-solving (that’s the same thing). So there is a huge mismatch between what your schools are designed to create and what companies actually need.
Unfortunately, businesses are not the ultimate customers of Fremont Unified – you are. And as long as you expect HSDLE (or schools that resemble your own education), that’s what the schools will be.
Yes, it’s maddeningly difficult to change schools. They are bureaucracies with complex and frequently competing priorities supported by complex infrastructure. But across the country, many schools and districts are innovating in ways we, here in Fremont, haven’t imagined or demanded. The best book I read all year was “What Schools Could Be”, by Ted Dintersmith, in which he describes his visits to 200 schools across the country. We visited several of these districts on our trip to Pittsburgh, PA. In most cases, the schools are no better resourced than ours. The difference is that the leadership and the customers of these schools decided that the skills and mindsets needed for today’s jobs has changed – so the preparation for those jobs needed to change as well.
So with those thoughts in mind, I have some advice:
First, define the skills and mindsets you want your graduates to have. This won’t be easy. But if you can define the skills and mindsets, then you can start to define the learning experiences that can create the skills. For example, if you think being innovative is a valuable skill for today’s economy, then perhaps the open-ended consulting projects Irvington students did for the city’s Public Works and Fire Departments represent a more powerful learning experience than AP Biology. Dr. Wallace is starting this exercise – help her create the district’s “Portrait of a Graduate”. But creating the portrait is only the first part – you then have to design the experiences that could support learning those skills. That’s the hard part. It might even involve deciding that learning doesn’t happen in 50 minute blocks.
Second, change the culture: make it okay to fail. One student I interviewed at Irvington said “High school determines your college and college determines the rest of your life, so I can’t make any mistakes.” That’s what she’s getting from her dinner table conversations with two parents who took enormous risks to come here and who now work at the most innovative companies in the world. Companies are looking for innovators. Unfortunately, innovation involves failure by definition. Forrester Research predicts she’s going to have 12 jobs by the time she’s 40. If she can’t fail in high school, how does she get ready for finding her way through 12 jobs? What if dinner table conversation was about all the failures you made today and what you learned from each one?
Finally, make this a crisis – because it is one. The world has changed. The skills, mindsets and educational experiences that worked for us are not going to work for our children. The HSDLE track that we have created is doing them a profound disservice by not preparing them with skills our companies need and expect. One thing is for sure – schools will not change until you demand it.
I have now had the opportunity and privilege of being involved in the design process for two schools, Urban Montessori and Latitude 37.8. As a parent, there have been few more rewarding privileges than the opportunity to think deeply, with a community, about the skills, knowledge and habits I want my two children to develop and designing learning experiences to create them. It was a manifestation of parenting’s most fundamental responsibility: to prepare our children to thrive.